NEAR WAVERLY, MINN. – Some horses back out of trailers, and I’ve owned a few that did. But the gelding I ride now steps out nose first, his head cocked slightly at an angle, eyes wide open, curious, it seems, about just where we’ve stopped this time, and why.
This was on a recent sunny morning and I was perhaps the 15th truck-and-trailer rig to line up in a pasture not far from a barn, an indoor arena and an outdoor loping pen.
The place, called Freedom Farm, is owned by Tom and Susie Bjorklund, whose horse interests diverge. Susie at one time showed dressage horses and now operates an acclaimed therapeutic riding program that benefits children, at-risk teens and adults, including veterans, all of whom, saddle sore or not, hit the trail smiling.
Tom, meanwhile, the son of a cowboy, is a cowboy himself and a good-humored one, as is so often necessary when a person throws in his lot with animals. This includes those who ride broncs, wanting to stay astride for eight seconds, or bulls, or while dallying a rope, wrestling a steer or cutting a cow.
It’s the latter that the bunch unloading their horses in the pasture were concerned about. This was a club cutting, a jackpot, meaning entry fees were low and winning paychecks small. Some might call it a practice, except that everyone wants to win. You don’t lope your horse in the morning before work, or in the evening after dark, and clean stalls and fork over cold cash to farriers to finish last. Yet during competitions so many variables can conspire in a rider’s disfavor that the point sometimes seems only to cultivate humility.
Years ago when Tom was working in Texas, I had a horse with him, a mare, and was showing her in Amarillo. Moneywise, Amarillo was a stretch for me, and for that reason among others I wanted to do well. Also my boys were still young enough to believe their dad could rope the moon, and I wanted to let that sleeping dog lie as long as possible. The bottom line is no one wants to be the participant stiff whose money heads down the road in someone else’s boot.
My mare that day in Amarillo was good. But in the end I didn’t get her shown. The third cow I cut, a mott-faced heifer, gave us the dodge, duck, dip, dive and ... dodge ... and slithered back to the herd. Immediately following which, in a little cartoon bubble above my head, everything I owned that was horse-related was being auctioned: bridles, saddles, halters, blankets and especially that mare. A complete, as they say, dispersal.
That didn’t happen, of course, and the gelding I compete on today is nicknamed TNT. Saddling him, and climbing aboard, I pointed him toward a mowed path that circled the pasture, asking him first to trot, then to pick up a lope.
An old saw has it that nothing is so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse, a gender-neutral truism that often is attributed to Winston Churchill and even Ronald Reagan. Actually John Lubbock said it first in 1894 in his book, “The Use of Life.”
Whether Lubbock was a horseman I don’t know. Perhaps he only intuited the pleasures these large animals evoke when, counterpoint to their otherwise indifferent natures, they bend atremble to a rider’s will. Either way, Lubbock seemed to understand the rewards of the company of horses and of horsemanship itself, when in his now-centuries-old treatise he wrote, “The most important thing to learn in life is how to live.”
Inside the Freedom Farm arena, members of the North Country Cutters club rode their horses in a circle, warming up. Dave Adelmann of Farmington was there, also his wife, Betty Lou, their daughter, Heather, and granddaughter, Hayley. Just 14, Hayley is an excellent rider, mounted on a good horse.
Dave Hamilton of Stillwater also was among those in attendance, as was Mike Krause of South Haven. Cowboy hat in hand, Mike would give the opening prayer, asking foremost that no one would be injured, then rambling on with a trove of other requests, perhaps tall corn included.
Cutting recalls a time long ago of open ranges, when campfire bragging rights were won by cowboys who rode horses most skilled at separating, or cutting, individual cows from a herd, perhaps for branding, doctoring or shipping on rail cars.
Having in the generations since been bred and bred back for their ability to “read” cattle and anticipate their movements, cutting horses today are related only tenuously to their forebears. Supremely athletic, the modern versions are the equine equivalents of Olympic gymnasts: strong, quick and capable of memorable performances.
In all of this, while under judgment, the rider’s trick is to stay centered and in sync with the horse while using only his or her legs, boots and spurs for control.
The rider’s trick also is to resist the urge to call the auctioneer if things don’t go well. Horse owners who have find empty barns lonely places indeed.